“It’s hard not to romanticize baseball”
- Billy Beane, Moneyball
The New Yorker is the gold standard for magazine writing. While it’s not immune from criticism—a liberal, East Coast publication that’s either deeply entrenched in or overly withdrawn from celebrity culture, depending of course on who you ask—each week, the magazine presents a carefully selected menu of articles, writing that is a potent combination of well-respected and well-read. It’s intellectually engaged and still easily digested. It’s where most writers want to write. But the New Yorker is not without its detractors, at least amongst the literary community; less due to its content but because of its style. While the magazine is well-rounded, covering all facets of esoterica in rapturous detail, its reportage is only to be presented sui generis, in the clear, clean prose that it has made famous. Its “house style” is a beacon for readers, as its masthead guarantees that each piece will be full of straightforward and crisp prose. At the very least, a New Yorker article is always well-written. But for writers, the New Yorker limits the pallet: paint anything at all on any canvas you’d like, but you can only use the primary colors. Writing that appears in the New Yorker is, by definition, conspicuously inconspicuous. As such, the writer must have the technique and skill not to call attention to his technique and skill. While this is a demonstration of aptitude, it’s also quite the handcuff, as it stops writers from taking the risks they might indulge when working under a different imprint. Writers who are more experimental, or stylistic – they might describe themselves as writers who not only love to write, but the actual art of writing – are forced to either suffocate their impulses or to find a different periodical. This isn’t to say that the New Yorker doesn’t allow for good writing: it’s filled with great writing, often the finest in contemporary literature. However, it’s exclusively a certain kind of writing: plainly and always good but always very plainly.
It is perhaps no surprise then, to think that Hollywood suffers from the same problem. The premiere directors in the film game have stellar technical abilities, honed through years of training and genepools of talent. But there’s a code – spoken or unspoken – amongst filmmakers, that at the peak of the filmmaking spectrum, where commerce meets criticism, directors are not supposed to indulge all of their artistic desires. This style can’t be wed to any particular party: it might be studio executives expecting that films are shot a certain way; an American school of plainspoken filmmaking that most directors subscribe to; or that the aggregate product of each director’s process leads to straightforward and plainly presented films. But ultimately, Hollywood films are presented in a manner akin to the New Yorker’s prose. Shots are not to be angled or lingered, music is not to be featured, dialogue and actions are always highlighted, and artistry and technique are never shown off. Now, Hollywood allows itself one luxury in this respect: it showcases filmmaking technique that is only made possible by the largesse of budget—see Messrs. Cameron, Bay, Nolan. This is the same sort of prize the New Yorker allots itself when writers produce a twenty-five page article, the privilege of being privileged, this being the kind of thing that we let ourselves do because we are the only people who can do this. However, the overall message of both Hollywood and The New Yorker transcends mediums: at the highest levels of mainstream storytelling, the story is told in the plainest manner.
Thus, Drive is an intriguing film because it refuses to follow these rules. Quite overtly, the film implicitly reminds the viewer that it is a film, and because of its self-conscious stylization, a very good one. Its story is as plain as possible: The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a Hollywood stunt driver by day and getaway driver by night. He becomes involved with two residents in his apartment building, a woman and her young son, until it is revealed to both The Driver and the viewer that she is not unattached: her newly-reformed husband has just been released from prison. Apparently, the husband still has some debts to pay to some sadistic individuals, and The Driver offers to help out. Histrionics ensue.
Drive is not your typical Hollywood film, and perhaps it should not be classified that way. It’s based on a short novel by James Sallis I have not read, and the book has described as an existentialist noir. This style would presumably play out in prose that is epigrammatic, bleak, and stark, and the movie works hard to create that exact vibe. The Driver, the film’s main character – though I’d argue that the main character is that it is a film itself – is never named, and he speaks approximately twenty lines of dialogue throughout the movie. Gosling intends to capture his character with the brooding and blank contortions that his facial muscles have mastered, as these expressions are evidently supposed to be signals of deep thinking. The effect of this however, is a resounding blankness, which actually works to great effect: the plainness of Gosling’s faces underscores the plainness of The Driver’s moral code, which doubles as the film’s underlying message, that there is a price that must be paid for doing bad things with good intentions to bad people.
While Drive has been promoted as a blockbuster film, this is probably due to its cast: Gosling, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston, Sons of Anarchy’s Ron Pearlman, the multi-talented Albert Brooks, a veritable who’s who of ad-free cable television. But the film’s tone is more characteristic of independent films, or even European art cinema. The film’s director, Nicholas Winding Refn, is a native Dane, and his previous films have mostly featured other European company. He uses the film as a tour de force demonstating his own directorial ability, presenting a series of well-formed pastiches: one section is reminiscent of an 80s car movie that would probably involve James Spader; another of a graphic and violent B-film whose gore is the main attraction. Winding Refn manages to avoid sacrificing the story with this approach, but perhaps that’s because there isn’t much of a story to tell; after the thrilling standalone vignette that prefaces the opening credits, Drive seems almost a vehicle for Winding Refn to play camera games, using story as the slatting for his directorial panache, as opposed to what’s usually the other way around.
I have failed to mention Quentin Tarantino up to this point, and he is the antidote to my earlier theory, that suggests that all Hollywood filmmakers are expected to direct their films in the plainest manner possible. Tarantino’s style – and his usage of violence as a panacea – is the underlying character of his work, the New York of his Sex and The City, the unending internal guilt of his Sopranos. Likewise, Winding Refn borrows a page from Tarantino’s book, as violence is not just the reason moviegoers have rushed to see Drive, but the reason that Drive should be seen—and not read, heard, or Wiki-ed. As is the case with Tarantino’s films, the violence is both graphic and comic, trenchant and animated. It serves as a storytelling technique, by telling us something about the kind of characters the Driver and his nemeses are, but also as a showcase, as the violence itself littered with the sort of creative allusions that stuntmen, choreographers and makeup artists fantasize about. Unfortunately, as the kniving continually takes precedence over the narrative, the gore gradually loses its shocking punch, instead growing increasingly satirical. The characters in Drive are barely fleshed out: one can only make the generalization that these are amoral men willing to go to extreme lengths to get what they want. And so, the violence appears not as natural outgrowth of their characters but the reason for their utter existence – they are alive only for the sake of killing people.
It is strange then, that Drive has gotten such strong reviews, from both audiences and critics. Part of this is due to strong and subdued acting performances from the movie’s stars, their characters are very different than any we’ve seen the four actors previously inhabit. But additionally, the film has a strange relationship with its masculine audience (presumably, the girls who like this movie are mostly there to see The Gosling). Drive appears to be the rare movie that was made for men without demeaning them. Typically resigned to being treated as highly conditioned mammals waiting for the next in a line of highly predictable and very expensive explosions, this movie gives men—and the movie is almost exclusively populated and driven by its male characters—the same artfulness that women receive from period romances: a color, a sophistication, a style. Now, there is another well-known director who makes real movies for real men: the aforementioned Quentin Tarantino. However, Tarantino perhaps the premiere auteur in the man-movie genre, is exclusively a writer-director (as are the Coens and Nolan, two other filmmakers I might hose into the “masculine” subset); as such, his films are tightly crafted to work within the guidelines of his style. His entire vision imbues itself from genesis to post-production—everything he makes is always entirely a Tarantino film in every way. While Drive, on account of its sparse story, has a degree of artistic consistency, the audience can’t help but feel that along the way, the message has been a bit muddled. As this is a film that is for by and about men, one is struck by the sexism so obvious in the film’s subtext: that men simply don’t know how to talk about their problems.
Moneyball, the recent film about the 2002 Oakland Athletics, takes the entirely opposite approach. It’s another film by and about men (as most films are!) but men are only half of its intended audience. It’s a film that operates in the new zone of high-profile filmmaking: a star-laden, well-credentialed, tightly written, Oscar contender, but without any special effects or superheroes, it’s still worried about making back its budget. Call it an apartment-complex buster. Moneyball is a strange film, although not for the reasons that critics might have you believe. They have appraised the film as unique because of its subject matter, suggesting that the film treats the sabermetric approach – identifying great baseball players based on data as opposed to impeccable deltoids – as its leading character. This isn’t really true. These critics have paid too much attention to Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ excellent 2003 book (and the basis for the film), which goes into full narrative detail about the origins and usage of sabermetrics.
Moneyball the movie, however, has sabermetrics as its theme, but not as its star. The film is actually a character piece, focusing on the life and struggles of Billy Beane, the Athletics’ iconoclast general manager. This is largely to Lewis’ credit: having re-read Moneyball, I see that his ability to oscillate between detailing the sabermetric approach, the ongoing narrative of the Athletics season and their players, and Beane’s own personal history is truly brilliant (it’s actually incredible how many of the key lines of dialogue are stolen from Lewis’ prose). While the film’s production struggles have been well-documented, after watching it, it’s quite clear that this was a movie waiting to happen.
Moneyball is a classic underdog story, and the sabermetric conceit that all the critics have focused on is a bit ridiculous – that underdogs need to find a unique way to beat the bigger and stronger favorite is a truth literally as old as David and Goliath. The film remains strange, however, because of how sparsely it operates. While Drive eschews dialogue for the luxuries of moviemaking—tons of killing, lots of colors, and supercutting—Moneyball is mostly people sitting around talking about baseball. This is partly due to the constraints of its subject matter but the film is shot in a very particular manner: Beane jiggles from conference call to conference call as he tries to land unheralded relief pitcher Ricardo Rincon, who eventually becomes a journeyman pitcher for the Oakland A’s, and they lose a future all-star in the process. Moneyball treats this trade as the highpoint of a great drama.
In a sense, this is a sports movie for people who don’t like sports movies. Moneyball doesn’t bother with most of the typical sports movie clichés - training sequences, pep talks, forced moments of team bonding – and instead focuses on Beane, as a manager, failed player, visionary – a man. This is largely due to its tightly-crafted script, written by Academy Award winners Steven Zaillan and Aaron Sorkin. Bennett Miller, the film’s director, smartly defers to the screenplay, letting the dialogue and character portrayals speak for themselves. (Credit especially goes to Sorkin: this is the first time he’s had to write characters whose main trait is not being insanely articulate, and he did a fantastic job. He is truly the best in the business.) And while the film ending was forced by the constraints of real-life (spoiler: the 2002 Oakland Athletics didn’t win the World Series) the movie deals with it admirably, closing the film by focusing on the character of Beane, and subtly meditating on the meaning of success.
What’s interesting about both of these films, apropos their entirely disparate contents and approach, is how seriously they take themselves. Like a writer with a Pulitzer, both Drive and Moneyball are determined to be movies that are excellent and different than the rest in their genre. They constantly remind the viewer of their pedigree, which is very strange, given that they are each ostensibly genre films that should be predominantly aimed at male audiences. In some ways, this is refreshing: it’s nice to see that some producers are committed to treating a commercial film like a piece of art; nuanced, sparse, unique. But in other respects, it’s very strange: although the films are well-made, they each ultimately rely on the hoaky clichés of their genre, so why aren’t they willing to admit that?
In the midst of thinking about these films, while shuffling through Bruce Springsteen’s latest album Wrecking Ball, I found myself listening to his old classic “Thunder Road”. Springsteen is an American icon and one of my favorite musicians, although he’s often incredibly clichéd, singing the same tired blue-collar songs about the same tired blue-collar stories. This would be a reason to avoid Springsteen, except for the fact that this is why I love Springsteen: I come for the cliché. Springsteen is a brilliant musician because while he doesn’t avoid clichés – and clichés are important, which is why they’re cliché – he doesn’t abuse them either: his songs are more universal than everyone else’s and they’re still well-written, creative, and musical. They’re pieces of art. Working within a well-tread trope doesn’t strangle creativity; singing songs about the Great American Dream doesn’t mean that they can’t be extremely well-written. Effectively, this is the opposite of The New Yorker problem. The New Yorker’s writers are so excellent because they don't let the house style stultify them. They write excellent pieces - that happen to follow the imposed rules. Drive and Moneyball are not movies filled with perfect choices—sometimes their focus on style interfered with their actual substance. But it's refreshing to see that directors are willing to make commercial, genre films with the same daring and voice that they apply to their pet projects, especially when these films are intended for an audience that is usually underestimated and condescended to—adult men with typical taste. As Billy Beane says so aptly, in a movie that's about trying to avoid doing so, "it's hard not to romanticize baseball". It's usually worth it.
Drive - a different kind of action movie. Not sure every facet worked, and the lack of character development was a bit frustrating, but you'll be glad you went. 79.
Moneyball - a dialogue heavy story that is at times inspiring, and at times very slow. Not sure you'd like it if you weren't a baseball fan, though the writing is sharp, and Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career. 83.